THE COMFORTER HAS COME
1Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her …6A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?"…9 Get you up to a high mountain, O herald of good tidings to Zion; lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings to Jerusalem, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
(Isaiah 40:1-2, 6, 9-11, NRSV)
Over these past few weeks PBS has been running a documentary on the life and work of Bob Hope, one of my favorite entertainers. While watching the two-hour show, I learned several facts about the entertainer that I had not previously known, but the real joy for me was watching clips of the shows I grew up with, the Bob Hope USO Christmas specials with the troops. The scene, and many of the same jokes, were played out again and again from World War II through Vietnam to the Gulf War. In total, Bob Hope made 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991, bringing smiles and comfort to literally millions of people both in person, and through the media.
From my youngest years, I remember watching the laughing faces of the young, boyish looking soldiers, laughing as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Bob Hope’s daughter, Linda, describes beautifully how a familiar part of Bob Hope’s routine was to poke fun at the unit’s own military brass, a technique that always worked. He would have his advance people find out who were the officers and what were the situations at the various bases, and he would build his monologues about those things, connecting with the soldiers in an extremely personal and joyful way.
As would be expected from Bob Hope, he and the other entertainers always visited the hospitalized soldiers who were unable to attend the show. The PBS documentary related one situation where one of the entertainers said she could not accompany Hope on the hospital visits since it was “just too sad to see the sick and the dying.” Hope reproached her with a seldom seen intensity, reminding her that the visit was about the soldiers who might never again see home or enjoy another Christmas, and she was to get in there and give it all she had! Needless to say, she did!
Linda Hope also reports how her father’s Christmas visits were so appreciated by the soldiers’ families and loved ones. She describes many letters received from families of GIs who had died overseas, often reporting that the very last thing they heard from their loved one was that they had seen the Bob Hope show and what a fun time it was. The families always conveyed their deepest gratitude for providing a respite from the awful conditions of war and making their loved one’s last days happier.
I can only assume that the comforting words spoken by Isaiah in our Scripture reading today would have been well appreciated by Bob Hope, a fellow comforter. “Comfort, oh comfort my people, wrote the prophet, speak tenderly to them….” Isaiah implored the God of Israel to bestow mercy and relief on the suffering. Though the times and the contexts were obviously different for Isaiah and Bob Hope, the fear, the pain and the suffering which they addressed were similar. We can easily imagine the USO context----many lonely and frightened soldiers, separated from all they knew and loved, often fearing injury and death, while, it seemed, most of the people at home were joyously gathering to celebrate the season.
The addressees of Isaiah’s words found themselves in analogous life and death circumstances. The intended listeners of Isaiah’s words of comfort and encouragement had been directed to those exiled in Babylonia after the capture of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC.
The exiles were also lonely and frightened, physically depleted, and fearing for their lives. Isaiah reminds the despairing people of the Exile that, notwithstanding their own iniquity, their God is a God of compassion who has not forgotten them. In words reminiscent of those describing Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Isaiah beautifully promises his people:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs in his arms,
And carry them in his bosom,
And gently lead the mother sheep.”
Bob Hope and Isaiah were united in their efforts to comfort so many who were deeply lonely and despairing. Thanks to God’s great compassion, the two “great prophets” were alerting the suffering people to prepare for God’s doing a “new thing” and saving them from their distress.
Some of us, maybe many of us, entered the sanctuary this morning traversing the terrain of our own internal war zones, our own Babylons, our own deep suffering and brokenness. Perhaps we have come seeking to find the signs of God’s everlasting promise to comfort and deliver each one of us. Loss of family members and friends, loss of health due to illness and addiction, loss of a familiar and comfortable way of life, loss of physical, mental and spiritual vitality, loss of security due to political crises----just how, we silently cry, how will we be able to bear our breaking and broken hearts?
Yet, carrying our suffering, we still approach these doors and soon the beloved Christmas music begins. Shortly thereafter, as always on the second Sunday of Advent, the Peace candle is lit, announcing yet again the ever-present availability of the Peace of God, the Peace that does in fact pass all understanding. And if we can become still enough, we may hear Jesus whisper in our hearts, “Come to Me, sit with Me, I came so that you would have abundant life. I will not abandon you, no matter what.”
While the words may sound comforting, how might they actually work in real life, given so much apparent evidence to the contrary? Can we really find peace in our world, our country, our neighborhoods, our families, our own souls? Or is that just a quaint notion of people and Christmases long, long ago?
One of the precious gifts I derived from my early years is a continuing soul-connection to certain saintly persons that I learned about in school or through my reading. One of these is Frances de Sales, a godly man of peace, who lived in the 17th century. He penned the ever-comforting prayer entitled “Be at Peace,” while he himself was grappling with the ever-present issue of suffering. Hear these words.
BE AT PEACE
Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;
rather look to them with full hope that, as they arise,
God, whose very own you are,
will lead you safely through all things,
and when you cannot stand it,
God will carry you in his arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow.
the same everlasting Father who cares for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings. AMEN.
Whenever I pray this prayer, I fight to resist the urge to remind God that I believe I am a better candidate for being shielded from suffering than from being given the strength to bear it. While, in fact, God has blessed me beyond my wildest imagination, like all of us, I am not a stranger to actual and deep suffering. And so, I love the promises of this prayer which I and so many others have experienced, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, in our eventual deliverance from active suffering.
So, while there may seldom be times of immediate reversal from deep suffering, there are in fact, TRUE words of comfort, faith and hope to aid us through our trials and tribulations. Remembering the promises of the One who appeared in our midst, seemingly a mere helpless infant, but who in fact is the greatest Comforter known to humanity, we can more peacefully await God’s doing a “new thing” and restoring our souls.
So, with deep gratitude to Bob Hope, Isaiah, St. Frances de Sales, and all others who work tirelessly to bring comfort to a sorely hurting world, let us cast our eyes toward the manger where the Prince of Peace awaits to reassure and comfort us yet again. AMEN.
God, our Lord and our Shepherd,
You come close when we need You
and even when we think we don’t.
Good and faithful God,
You are beside us all the way
when we notice You and when we don’t.
leading and feeding,
Your eyes never stray from us.
Call us back again, God,
to be with You
in this hallowed time and season,
blessed because we are Your people
May these days and weeks
be a true advent
of new thinking,
new communion with You and with each other.
We pray all these things in the name of the Blessed One, the Babe of Bethlehem,
(adapted from prayer written by Joanna Love, www.churchofscotland. org.)